Saturday, December 29, 2012

Flash Mob On a Judean Hillside

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”  Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This story has Hallmark made-for-TV-movie written all over it!  An angel suddenly appears to a young teen and tells her “you’re pregnant, and, by the way, God did it”.  The teen is so frightened she runs off to seek comfort from her favorite aunt, and the meeting turns into a crescendo of praise for God that’s like a choreographed flash mob.  Mary’s song would make the Sound of Music’s Maria and the Von Trapp family singers proud! 

Let’s unpack the story:

An Unexpected Visit

The angel’s greeting gets this story off to a strange start.  He calls  her “favored”.  My friend Julie always answers this way.  I ask, “How are you doing today?”  She says, “Blessed and highly favored”!  Well, it sure didn’t seem so to Mary; she reacted in two very conflicting ways – fear and faith. 

mary’s fear

Mary’s fear was understandable; she was only twelve or thirteen, and this was very confusing news.  Her future was planned by her parents to be married to Joseph; she’s told she’s pregnant.  What in the world will she tell Joseph?  Joseph won’t understand this.  And what about her Dad?  She has questions for Mr. Angel…hey, this isn’t fair!  Life is tough enough when you’re a kid – why me, God?

Mary’s faith

But then Mary’s faith surfaced and she resolutely accepted what the angel told her.  She states the obvious, that she is the servant of God.  The KJV has the word handmaid; actually the word is doulē (δούλη), and is better translated “female slave”.  Mary committed herself to serve God without regard to her own will; she would be a slave, surrendered in faith!

What do we learn from Mary’s fear and faith?  Fear means you’re looking at the short term difficulties of circumstances.  Mary knew it  could be a hard road ahead with this unexplained pregnancy on her resume’.  But faith drives you to make the first step of obedience to honor God, in spite of the circumstances.

You’ve done that.  When your parents helped you learn to walk  you had to trust them enough take a first step.  It was a small step, and you were probably scared, hesitant; this was new.  You may have fallen – but you learned, and it became natural for you!

Abraham did that.  When God called him to leave his home place to take his little family on a journey where God would lead, he took the hardest step of obedience – the first one. 

When God chooses you it’s liable to mean small, fearful beginnings and a blind step of faith, but if it leads to the land of God’s blessing, be the slave of the Lord!  He “highly favors” you!

An Unexpected Connection

Mary’s first step led away from her home in Nazareth out to the remote hill county of Judea, the home of her favorite Aunt Elizabeth.  The Bible tells us she went with haste.  Why hurry?  Chances are Mary hoped her Aunt would help sort all this out.  She was an unmarried pregnant teenager.  In our day this is, sadly, pretty common; in Mary’s day it was a scandal that could have gotten her the death penalty.  Haste and hush were of necessity!

connected by more than blood

Now, all of Mary’s family knew Elizabeth and Zechariah couldn’t have children, and they were now well-past child bearing days.  But the angel told Mary her old aunt was already six-months pregnant.  So, really, we have two miracles in this story.  Mary, the too-young virgin is pregnant, and so is Elizabeth, the too-old barren one.  These two are connected at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Scientists tell us there is an amazing phenomenon called “quantum entanglement”.  If two particles of energy are kept in close proximity to each other for a long time, they form a relationship, a  kind of bond that defies the imagination.  The connection between these two particles is so strong that if you separate them – one in New York and the other in Los Angeles, whatever you do to the one will instantly happen in the other.  Einstein called this “spooky”.[1]

Aunt Elizabeth and Niece Mary had that kind of connection.  When Mary said “hello” to Elizabeth, the old woman’s baby leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.  If you read ahead you find that Elizabeth’s child will be called “John (the Baptist).  Because of the Holy Spirit’s presence, the Baptist in the womb jumps with joy to be near his cousin Jesus, the long-awaited promised Lord of glory.

What is surprising here is that Mary went to her Aunt for comfort and enlightenment; but Elizabeth was the one who got both.  What do we learn from this unexpected connection of expectant mothers? 

as humility goes up – blessings come down

We learn that humble hearts are never overlooked by God when it comes to blessing.  Mary was young, Elizabeth old; God blessed both of them. 

We must also learn to not judge the young Marys or the old Elizabeths in our lives.  Unexpected beginnings are not endings.  Granny Parker was a church member in a small church I served in Florida.  By virtually all human standards she was not influential or revered as a leader.  Granny had a learning disability and couldn’t participate in a traditional education process.  But that was only her beginning.

As a young woman in the depression Granny’s parents died and she inherited the 100 acre farm she lived on all her life.  When the opportunity came to start a mission church she gave two acres to begin the work.  Later she graciously parted with 10 more acres as the church grew and needed more space.  Today, where humble Granny began life on a small farm in 1911, there is a 600-seat sanctuary and several other buildings to serve that community. 

Granny died at 98 a few years ago.  This under-educated, unsophisticated, rough farm girl could barely write her own name, but her relationship with God was so strong, when you heard her pray, it was clear every angel in heaven was paying attention as Jesus and Granny caught up on the day’s events. 

An unexpected visit and an unexpected connection, and…

A Misunderstood Outcome

Perhaps, like Granny Parker, both Elizabeth and her niece Mary naively misunderstood everything.  They certainly couldn’t forsee all the pain that was on their horizon.  Elizabeth’s child would be imprisoned and beheaded; Mary’s child….well, you know.

But, their misunderstanding was well-placed.  Elizabeth’s and Mary’s words recorded in this text are words of utmost faith in Jehovah.  It was like a flash mob, extemporaneously gathering and exploding with praise on that Judean hillside.  Elizabeth (v.41-45) was filled with God’s Spirit and bubbled over with praise for God’s kindness in bringing about the fulfillment of the long-awaited promise of Messiah. 

Mary, also, is seized by the Spirit’s joy and her Magnificat “song of praise” (v.46-55), proclaims that everything in life is about to be turned upside-down:

·        Those with reason to be proud will be humbled

·        Those with riches will end up at the soup kitchens

·        Those who occupy thrones will be powerless

“Upside-down-ness” is the theme of Betty MacDonald’s children’s stories about Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.  Children love to visit this amazing place because its floors stretch overhead, while its ceilings lie underfoot.  The piano that dangles from Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s house’s floor is difficult to play.  People must swing from a trapeze in  order to play it.  Couches and chairs also hang from the floor above in this upside-down house.  This, of course, makes it hard to sit in them.

People who want to open a [cabinet], use the bathroom or even heat something on Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s stove must carefully plan how to do it.  Nothing, after all, is quite where you expect it in this upside down house.  Surprises wait for anyone who’s careless in it.[2]

This is the future about which Mary and Elizabeth prophesy. Everything is turned on its ear, and God sets it all straight.  So what have Mary and Elizabeth missed here?  What is misunderstood?

C.S. Lewis called Mary’s song a terrible song, playing on the Latin “terribillis” which means dreadful, frightful, fearsome[3].  It seems the birth of Jesus will shake the very foundations of society and change everything.  Children will do that!

When our first child, Jennifer, came along we were so thrilled – so very naïve about how life was going to be so perfect.  The pain of childbirth, it is said, fades into the memory past, leaving the joy of relationship. But, in truth, childbirth also obscures the pain of the future.  Scraped knees and assorted “boo boos” aside, this dangerous world (particularly to children) is a labyrinth of trouble.  There are places called Sandy Hook!

Mary sang over her firstborn, a perfect child – future king; but she missed entirely the shadow the cross cast across that manger!

But that is how it is when you serve God, when you commit to being His “slave” – your life will never be the same again, predictable, comfortable.  There is no such thing as “safe” obedience. 

the god of dead ends

Mary and Elizabeth…powerless, little hope for a secure future…lives of dead ends.  And, suddenly….God!  That’s how it is when you’ve got something new swelling your insides.

[1] Scott Hoezee, The Center for Excellence in Preaching
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

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